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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Peanut Butter Falcon

First-time actor Zack Gottsagen steals the show — and sparks up a warm rapport with Shia LaBeouf — in this kind-hearted road-trip comedy about a wrestling fanatic with Down syndrome.
By Sarah Ward
January 31, 2020
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The Peanut Butter Falcon

First-time actor Zack Gottsagen steals the show — and sparks up a warm rapport with Shia LaBeouf — in this kind-hearted road-trip comedy about a wrestling fanatic with Down syndrome.
By Sarah Ward
January 31, 2020
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Playing a fisherman grieving for his older brother, barely scraping by and unafraid to skirt the law when necessary, Shia LaBeouf is at his soulful best in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Forget Transformers-era, phoning it in LaBeouf, or even his bag-wearing phase — here, he's as dynamic and textured as he was in 2016's American Honey, his last great on-screen role. And yet, LaBeouf isn't this indie comedy's main attraction. He's one of its leads, and he's surrounded by the similarly well-known likes of Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, John Hawkes and Thomas Haden Church, but this little film with a big heart actually belongs to first-time performer Zack Gottsagen. In fact, writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz created their first feature especially for Gottsagen, in order to showcase his acting talents.

After Gottsagen has spent mere seconds on-screen as The Peanut Butter Falcon's wrestling-obsessed Zak, it's obvious why Nilson and Schwartz were determined to make this movie around him. The trio met at a camp for actors with disability, as Gottsagen has Down syndrome — and the way that adults with the genetic disorder are typically treated by society is key to this adventure. This isn't a message-driven feature, but a picture that places a man living with the health condition at its centre, letting his hopes, wants, needs and desires lead the story. Zak's dream couldn't seem more simple, with the 22-year-old so eager to attend his idol's wrestling school that he breaks out of the nursing home he's been forced to live in. But the reality of actually getting to his destination is far more complicated than it should be.

As someone with Down syndrome — and someone housed in a care facility for the elderly because there's just nowhere else that caters for him — Zak's dreams, ideas, and general ability to do anything and everything are all constantly overlooked. His primary carer Eleanor (Johnson) treats him like a friend, but it's only after his roommate Carl (Dern) helps him to escape that Zak is really able to make his own decisions. With nothing but the underpants he's wearing to his name, he bunkers down in a boat, only to find himself caught up in its owner's mishaps. That'd be Tyler (LaBeouf), who is soon on the run from local crab trappers. Heading to Florida, he agrees to escort Zak to the only place in the world the runaway wants to go: the North Carolina wrestling academy run by faded icon Salt Water Redneck (Haden Church).

Cue a series of Huckleberry Finn-style escapades, as The Peanut Butter Falcon's central duo ry to evade the folks on their tail while trudging through fields, building a raft to help them float along the coast and, eventually, unleashing Zak's wrestling persona — which gives the feature its name. Plot-wise, Zak and Tyler's exploits play out exactly as expected, but there's such a wealth of earnestness, affection, tenderness and charm to this movie that no one should mind that the story follows a predictable path. There's an enormous difference between films that stick to a template lazily, because it's easy and because they have no real reason to exist otherwise, and those that mould familiar parts into their own distinctive creation. Anchored by Gottsagen's effortlessly engaging presence, as well as by a protagonist too rarely given such a spotlight, this highly likeable picture falls into the latter category.

Thoughtful, meaningful, realistic and empowering representation matters, which The Peanut Butter Falcon boasts in spades. That said, movies like this shouldn't be such a noteworthy occurrence — however addressing that imbalance is far from the film's only strength. So crucial to this warm-hued, good-natured feature is its breezy attitude and approach. This is a coming-of-age buddy comedy about two adults traversing America's south in often over-the-top circumstances, but every element is treated as though it's the most common thing in the world. A blind preacher shooting at Zak and Tyler, then baptising them, is just one of many components of the pair's journey that's simply part of their adventure. So too is a drunken night by a bonfire, a spirited service station encounter between Tyler and Eleanor and, most importantly, everything about Zak.

Indeed, recognising that life's chaos happens to everyone is The Peanut Butter Falcon's remit — and showing that even the most ordinary events and extraordinary developments do as well. It's noticeable that, despite Johnson's efforts, Eleanor isn't afforded as much depth as the film's male characters. Actually, it's the feature's main disappointment. But when The Peanut Butter Falcon focuses on Zak's enthusiastic pilgrimage, the sincere bond he makes with another lonely soul, and the change it inspires in both him and Tyler, it's a warm-hearted hug of a movie.

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